| 5.1°C Belfast

Strangford Lough race: 'That half-hour I spent in the water was probably the longest of my life'

A yacht race competitor who was one of at least 20 people tossed into choppy Strangford Lough when a sudden storm flared up said the 30 minutes he spent in the water was probably "the longest half-hour of my life".

Just a few minutes after the squall – perhaps a last flick of the tail from Hurricane Bertha – came through, the waters of the lough were calm again as the massive air and sea rescue operation swung into action.

Bruce Quail (63), from Perth, and his boatmate Steve Heywood (39), originally from England, were thrown overboard and they were relieved to be plucked from the waters off East Down Yacht Club at Killyleagh during the GP14 World Championship races.

Mr Quail said: "We were on a run with the spinnaker up and a gust caught us and we capsized. The mast broke and we had to to abandon the boat.

"We were wearing lifejackets and we never feared for our lives or anything like that because there were so many rescue boats about.

"But it was cold and when we got onshore we were given cups of hot tea, but that half-hour in the water felt more like an hour and was probably the longest half-hour of my life."

Frenchman Alain Renaud (39) said: "Our boat capsized. We were able to get our boat upright again and get in safely.

"When we came back we were surprised to see all the ambulances and safety people but I am glad no one was badly injured."

Lucia Nicholson (51), who lives in Sligo but is originally from Fermanagh, was out on the waters and her boat stayed upright.

She said the experience would not put her off and she was set to race again today.

Ms Nicholson said those who fell into the water would have been well-drilled on what to do in an emergency and were kitted out with the correct safety gear.

Jamie Ritchie (26), from Bangor, – a member of Royal Ulster Yacht Club – said: "A squall came out of nowhere and knocked a lot of boats over. The rescue boats responded very quickly and there were nerves but it was completely under control."

Joe Foulkes (17), from Cheshire, said his dad's boat had a chunk taken out of it as he watched the drama unfold from the clubhouse.

"I saw some boats being towed in from about three miles out and I have never seen an incident like this before. I am glad that nobody was seriously hurt."

East Down Yacht Club spokesman Jay Colville said that yesterday was the first day of the championships and 88 boats went out at noon.

Towards the end of the first race, it was decided that because of worsening weather the second race would be cancelled.

"Apparent media reports of 80 boats being capsized would be incorrect as there would have been no more than 10-12 boats capsized at any one time, which were handled successfully by competitors and the team of 13 safety boats accompanying the fleet.

Rob Steventon, Coastguard Incident Commander, said: "The rescue boats were on hand and a few others were brought ashore by the lifeboat.

"These things can happen. They are very well kitted-out.

"They all have dry suits or wet suits and lifejackets so they are used to capsizing and can self- recover."

Belfast Telegraph